Education

Two popular area charter schools want to increase student diversity. Here’s their strategy.

Community School of Davidson and Charlotte Lab School both have strong demand, good reputations and successful students. What more could these two charter schools want?

Diversity.

Both schools, which are majority white and have low poverty levels, have opted to reserve seats for low-income students next school year. Their leaders say that’s not an act of charity but a strategy to help all their students – though they realize they may catch heat when more affluent families land on the waiting list.

“This isn’t about saving anybody or helping anybody,” said Charlotte Lab School founder Mary Moss Brown. “We don’t want to be a school where there are handouts and assumptions made.”

School diversity – or the lack of it, which is often dubbed resegregation – is a hot topic in Mecklenburg County and across North Carolina. Both founders say they see their charter schools as taking a stand in the broader discussion.

“We are passionate about the notion of socioeconomic integration in education,” said Community School of Davidson founder Joy Warner.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has just launched a new system that uses socioeconomic status to award seats in magnet schools, and is considering how to revise boundaries to get more balance.

Charter schools, which are public schools authorized by the state and run by independent boards, account for a growing share of enrollment in Mecklenburg County and statewide. Contrary to popular perception, they’ve never been allowed to cherry-pick successful students or affluent families, though critics say they can shape their enrollment through location, marketing and requiring families to provide their own transportation and/or meals.

In the Charlotte region, the demographics of charter schools tend to look a lot like nearby public schools. In the north suburban area, that’s mostly white and middle class – and indeed, Community School of Davidson is 86 percent white and only 5 percent low-income.

Warner says when her small private school transitioned to a charter school in 2004 diversity was one of the goals. She applied to use race to balance enrollment, but the state said no.

Charlotte Lab School opened two years ago on the northern edge of uptown Charlotte. There, too, diversity was part of the mission. But the founders came from affluent Charlotte neighborhoods, and it was their friends and associates who signed up for the new school, which is 60 percent white and 17 percent low-income.

Brown says her team visited child-care centers, churches, libraries and anywhere else they could think of to market their school to a more diverse population. But Charlotte had just seen a spate of charter schools that catered to low-income neighborhoods open with big promises and close within months, and Brown says that created wariness about another start-up.

Then Brown and Warner heard about Central Park School for Children in Durham, a charter school that piloted a lottery that gave preference to low-income students. When the state allowed other charter schools to seek permission to do the same, Charlotte Lab and Community School applied. So far only four of the state’s 168 charter schools have opted to give low-income students priority (the fourth is an all-girls school in Wilmington).

At Charlotte Lab, new applicants were asked if they wanted to submit information to qualify for the socioeconomic priority. Next year the school will have 435 K-6 students, with most of the openings in kindergarten and sixth grade. The school will reserve enough seats to reach 25 percent poverty next year, with the goal increasing year by year to 40 percent in 2023.

Brown says the move toward a weighted lottery has been part of an ongoing conversation about diversity that goes beyond numbers. For instance, when parents asked for a traditional father-daughter dance, that sparked discussion about everything from gender roles to children who don’t have fathers in their lives. The school settled for separate boys’ and girls’ events, with each group invited to bring a special person.

And the faculty has challenged families to think about stereotypes they hold, including fears that as poverty levels increase, the school will see academics slump and behavior worsen. Some families argued that Charlotte Lab should just keep reaching out to lower-income families without actually giving them an edge for admission.

Brown says that’s not enough to make a difference. Early this week, with only a few days left to apply for 2017-18 admission, Charlotte Lab had 1,100 applications for 97 openings, and only 70 were from low-income students. In a random selection, she said, the numbers wouldn’t change much.

“People tend to think they want diversity, but they don’t actually want the results of diversity,” Brown said. “We’ve had some upset parents.”

Warner says she hasn’t – so far. Community School of Davidson’s board will determine the number of seats to reserve for low-income students before each lottery, somewhere between 10 percent and 30 percent. With about 3,500 children on this year’s waiting list, that’s likely to generate some frustration.

“I’m just prayerfully hoping it goes well,” she said. “It’s easy to be supportive when it’s not your kid who’s next on the wait list and didn’t get in.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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